As South Africa continues to give more rights to tenants and landlords find it increasingly difficult to evict illegal tenants, England and Wales have amended their laws, making it illegal for people to squat. Homeowners in the UK have had it tough since the 1970s when the Criminal Law Act of 1977 was passed, stating that it was an offence for anyone to use or threaten violence to enter a property if anyone inside did not wish them to enter. This law went on to form the basis of what became better known as squatter rights.
The law backfired horribly, as suddenly those who left their properties and went on holiday ran the risk of finding their homes occupied by squatters upon their return. The problem became so widespread that in 1994 the British government amended the law to offer some protection against squatters and it became a criminal offence not to leave a property once proof of ownership or the identity of the legal tenant was established. In theory this should have solved the growing problem. However, police were still reluctant to become involved in what they considered to be a civil matter and most homeowners were forced to turn to the courts to get the squatters legally evicted.
Although there were laws in place making it a criminal offence for squatters to damage property that did not belong to them most, if not all, of the properties that were illegally occupied were extensively vandalised. Many homeowners simply abandoned their properties as the cost of repairing the damage and the legal fees incurred while attempting to evict were often astronomical.
Under the new law, squatters face up to six months in prison and/or a £5000 fine and any intruder who moves into someone else’s property can be arrested immediately. British Justice Minister Crispin Blunt stated that hard-working homeowners needed - and deserved - a justice system where their rights came first. What is surprising is that a First World country passed laws that not only flouted the rights of homeowners, but also allowed the situation to continue for so many years.
South Africa has recently amended the law regarding the rights of tenants and if the UK is anything to go by, one wonders if we could be headed down the same disastrous road. There are many who believe that the world owes them something and who won’t bat an eyelid when deciding to stop paying rent and become a so-called illegal squatter. Homelessness is a huge problem around the world and it goes without saying that there are large numbers of desperate people in South Africa looking for shelter.
It could almost be said that Britain, although aware of the growing housing crisis, seemingly turned a blind eye to the situation and placed the onus firmly on the law abiding homeowner to remove people that the government itself couldn’t house. At this stage the South African government has adopted a similar approach. It may be possible to evict squatters (or illegal tenants), however, it is going to take a great deal of time and money to do so.
It has been estimated that there are approximately 20 000 squatters in the UK. There are no official figures for those who illegally occupy property in South Africa. However, if the buildings in the centre of Johannesburg are anything to go by, we have a serious squatting problem in this country. Illegal occupiers of buildings do not pay rates and often utilise illegal electricity and water connections. The cost involved must surely run in to hundreds of millions of Rands and the situation simply cannot be ignored in the long term.